For summer in the 1980s, young Westport girls got fresh haircuts, new Benetton outfits, and headed off to camp.
Anya Liftig did not join them.
“I didn’t feel cool enough,” she recalls. “And it was too expensive.”
Instead, she and her family traveled to Kentucky. “This is your own camp,” her father Robert said.
Anya’s grandmother’s house was impeccably clean. But it was filled with cousins not much older than Anya, and their babies. She loved to read, but hid her books from her Kentucky kin.
“There was a lot of poverty, sadness and unhealthy people,” Anya says. “They were deeply uneducated, because the schools were so bad.”
Anya’s mother’s people lived in a remote holler, in “hillbilly” country. (Her mother Inez used that term.)
“They legitimately walked 2 miles to the bus, and rode an hour to school,” Anya says.
Her mother was the first family member to leave the area, for a state university and then the Peace Corps. Despite the limitations, Inez had grown up surrounded by encyclopedias and globes.
Growing up in “opulent” Westport — where Robert, who met Inez in the Peace Corps, was a teacher — while spending summers in Kentucky was “confusing,” Anya says.
“I didn’t know who I was. It was 2 worlds, and 2 different philosophies. But I was grateful that both families were very loving.”
That dual existence forms the heart of “Holler Rat,” Anya’s new memoir. It weaves her years in Connecticut and Kentucky with college at Yale, her journey to performance art, a shattering period when everything fell apart, and the self-reckoning that followed.
Her world was the product of 2 very different ones. Anya’s father grew up Jewish. He opposed the Vietnam War; Connecticut politician Abraham Ribicoff helped him land a spot in the Peace Corps.
Anya went to Coleytown Elementary and Middle Schools. In Staples High’s Class of 1995 she joined Players, Student Assembly, Model UN and the Law Club.
Her most important activity was dance. She started at age 6, as therapy after a severe injury. At 15 she joined Martha Graham’s Teenage Ensemble, commuting to New York.
Her major at Yale was English, but she continued to pursue theater. She learned photography and sculpture, earned a graduate degree in studio art, and traveled the world performing, and showing her work at galleries and museums. Film work came later.
“Holler Rat” was conceived originally as performance art. But after her divorce (from a “boarding school/Yale guy”), the loss of her apartment and her “breakup with New York,” Anya moved back to Connecticut.
Her life shifted. Writing became both a release, and a way to understand her 2 worlds. Examining both class and culture, Anya asked herself, “‘Why did this happen?’ I excavated my life.”
Growing up in Westport, she says, friends called her “Kentucky Fried Liftig.” But they did not know much about her life there. Anya never told them about the poverty and sadness in her mother’s family.
“In Westport I could be a nerdy, artsy smart kid,” she says.
But she also felt pressure. Her mother — like Robert, a teacher — had sacrificed so much. “There was unspoken pressure to be academically successful, to do her proud.”
Those summers in the holler were part fun, part strange. Her mother’s family accepted her father “as best as they could.”
Robert, meanwhile — a very outgoing man — was fascinated by bluegrass music and mountain culture.
“There was never a feeling of ‘here comes the Yankee to steal our Southern belle,'” Anya says. “It was more like oddballs meeting oddballs.”
Robert brought his bagpipes to Kentucky. “That’s his personality,” Any notes. “He was willing to make himself vulnerable. They let him in as much as they could.”
Her father’s scholarly interests in books, history and ancestry were seen as “silly eccentricities.” It took a long time for Anya to figure out those family dynamics.
Along the way, there were “uncomfortable moments. Things were said — not maliciously, but they were said.”
In college, Anya kept kosher. In Kentucky, her grandmother served bacon and sausage for breakfast.
The juxtapositions that had begun years earlier — when Anya’s friends went off to camp, and she headed to the holler — continued.
Soon, we can all read about those confusing, odd years, when Anya had her dancing feet planted in 2 different worlds.
And what it all means to, and for, her today.
(“Holler Rat” will be published August 15. For more information, click here. For Anya Liftig’s website, click here.)
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